Tuesday, January 26, 2010

On Paper

Woodcut from Basle, Switzerland, late 17th c. According to paper historian Dard Hunter, writing in 1930, "the engraving has never been used in any book on papermaking."

It's probably in some way hypocritical or self-contradictory or at least ironic to use a blog post to electronically disseminate a defense of the indispensable special qualities of paper artifacts, but then you likely wouldn't be reading this otherwise, so here goes.

Compared to many technologies (pottery, weaving, writing), true papermaking is a relative newcomer, invented, it is said, in China sometime around 105 AD by one Cai Lun. (The significantly older technologies of papyrus and parchment do not represent true paper, as they are not made from pulped fibers but from continuous sheets or strips of natural material.) As with many industries, paper manufacture has gone through a predictable cycle, starting with a long period of relative stasis in which it was labor-intensive, small in scale, and highly variable in terms of the quality of the finished product, followed by major technological advances (the replacement of the hand mould and press by a continuous rotary belt process in the first half of the 19th century) that led to dramatic increases in production and affordability accompanied by standardization and, in general, cheapening of quality. Finally, the technology is now -- or so one is told -- threatened with obsolescence, at least in part, but, paradoxically and perhaps nostalgically has been revived in something resembling its traditional form by artisans for the specialty or luxury market.

Paper does have its drawbacks. It's highly vulnerable to fire and water and its manufacture requires a steady stream of natural materials. In China and Japan paper was traditionally directly made from a variety of plant sources (and still is, by artisans) but in Europe the material of choice was recycled rags, themselves originally composed of linen, cotton, or other textile fibers. In the 19th century a burgeoning readership led to a shortage of raw materials and the adoption of wood pulp, which tends to be acidic and to deteriorate rapidly over time. For this reason the paper in books published before the 1800 is often in better shape than paper produced only a few decades ago. More recently an attempt has been made to improve durability by using acid-free paper, at least in books that are considered to have potential lasting value.

But enough potted history. Much more authoritative information can be obtained from a variety of sources (see endnotes). When well-made and protected, paper is surprisingly stable. It's certainly a more long-lasting medium than magnetic recording tape and may be more durable than optical media like CDs and DVDs (check back in a hundred years). Moreover, the readability of paper does not depend on special hardware or software that can itself become obsolete (floppy disc drive in that laptop, anyone?); it requires only a human reader trained to interpret a certain system of signs.

Electronic dissemination of documents is cheaper than printing on paper just as modern printing and papermaking technology is cheaper than the handcraft practices that prevailed for centuries. If paper still had to be made by hand there'd be a lot less of it and hence fewer and more expensive books, newspapers, and so on. That would certainly not be a good thing, just as it would be a shame and a mistake to forgo the revolutionary possibilities of electronic dissemination. But efficiency has costs as well as its benefits, and one of them is the loss of texture that occurs anytime a highly labor- and material-dependent technology is replaced by one that can be endlessly reduplicated with minimal effort.

Texture is not "content" or "information" -- at least not in a simple, reductive sense -- and can't easily be digitized. It creates complications, wrinkles. Texture -- even the texture of a flat sheet of paper -- is three-dimensional. Big ideas, on the other hand, are two-dimensional, and need to be so to make order out of chaos. But the world is always more complicated than such systems imply, and the apprehension of texture is essential in order to reveal the existence of things the big ideas gloss over. Texture isn't necessarily physical; a story, an idea, an algorithm, a digital artwork, can be textural if they create three dimensions where there had previously only been two.

In the case of paper, there often are specific physical aspects that may be of interest. A book might have little intrinsic value, at least to a particular reader, in terms of its subject matter, but the chain lines and watermarks left by paper moulds, the irregularities and stray fibers, the untrimmed deckle edges, may still have value for the evidence they provide about the system of manufacture that produced the paper and the market and readership that supported its production. Much the same could be said for the materials and decoration of the binding.

There's also the issue of context. To take just one example, you may be able to find a 19th-century New York Times article online, but if you're not at the same time seeing the stories in the adjacent columns, or the ads that may have appeared on the bottom or on the facing the page, you're missing part of the story. For your purposes the text alone may be sufficient, but that's not the same as saying that the other evidence doesn't exist. The truth is, you can't always know, or quantify, the value of texture, and yet it's there, and may be telling us things we want or ought to know.

There's another concern as well. In the course of various researches, several times in the past year I've tapped into Google Books and examined historical materials -- The Jewelers' Circular and Horological Review (1898) and Electrical Worker: Official Journal of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (1914 and 1915), to name two instances -- that I would certainly not have known of, let alone been able to read and quote from, had they not been digitized. Purchasing the originals, if it were even possible to locate them, would have been prohibitively expensive. (A professional historian might well have been able to track them down where they were archived, but I don't have the training or the resources.) Being able to find them was a great boon, but it points up a quandary. These documents were created and circulated on paper, because there was no alternative. How much historical evidence about the 21st-century world is destined to disappear because it is being disseminated in the form of web pages, emails, Word documents, and other electronic forms? How many blogs will be accessible five years, or twenty years, or fifty years from now? (For what it's worth, I keep a hard copy of most of my own posts.) The universal preservation of electronic materials would, of course, create a inconceivable glut of information, most of which would never be examined. My point is that what we create on paper may, ironically, have a better chance of long-term survival than the output of all of our sophisticated technological novelties.

In the past year I've often reproduced and written about documents and images that were originally created on paper, some of them uncommon or even unique. I value the opportunity to present them here, just as I enjoy the work that others do in documenting the things they've discovered. But we need to remind ourselves that with everything that's shared, something is also being held back. To get the whole story and appreciate these things for their beauty and their evidence of history and all that they may have to say, you have to hold them in your hands.

A few endnotes:

The Gibbon of papermaking was Dard Hunter of Chillicothe, Ohio, who not only traveled through China, Japan, and other regions tracing its history but ran his own paper mill, cast his own type, and printed and bound his own books. His handmade books are collector's items and worth a small fortune (I've never even seen one), but there is a Dover paperback edition of his definitive Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft. A biography of Hunter by Cathleen Baker, By His Own Labor, was published by Red Hydra Press in 2000. More information on the history of paper can be found at the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The writer Nicholson Baker created a furor a few years ago when he published Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, in which he inveighed against the deaccessioning by libraries of books and other documents that were microfilmed or digitized and then destroyed, a practice supposedly justified by the greater accesibility, reduced storage requirements, and greater permanence of the new media. While Baker may have gotten some things wrong, there's no doubt that some of the activities he described, such as the destruction of rare bound volumes of 1900-era newspapers, color supplements and all, were little short of cultural crimes. Baker founded an organization, the American Newspaper Repository, to rescue some of the orphaned volumes; the Repository's holdings have since been acquired by Duke University.

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